Holy Cow: Bovine Idioms

Updated on March 26, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

It’s more than 10,000 years since cattle were domesticated, so it’s not surprising that they crop up in plenty of proverbs, sayings, and adages.


“Take the Bull by the Horns.”

Meaning: To deal with a problem head on.

Some say this phrase comes out of the American rodeo practice of steer wrestling. It’s one thing to tackle a steer weighing around 500 pounds but quite another to deal with a fully grown bull tipping the scales at up to 2,000 pounds.

Grabbing a mature bull by the horns is going to end badly, and not for the bull.

As a trivial addendum, in 1962 there was an advertisement in which a winsome young lady in everyday going-out-into-the-fields attire is standing with her hand on the horn of a bull. The caption reads “I dreamed I took the bull by the horns … in my Maidenform bra.”


“Until the Cows Come Home.”

Meaning: At some indefinite time in the future.

The origin of this statement appears to be mysterious, as it does with many idioms. Most experts agree that it first showed up in a play The Scornful Lady of 1616 vintage. “Kiss ‘till the Cow come home, kiss close, kiss close knaves.” But why? Theories abound:

  • Cows amble slowly to the milking shed;
  • When their milk production drops they go the slaughter house and never come home; or,
  • Unlike horses that go astray, cows don’t find their way home.

Take your pick.

The final word goes to Groucho Marx in Duck Soup: “I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought I'd rather dance with the cows until you come home.”

“Like a Red Rag to a Bull.”

Meaning: an action intended to cause anger.

You have to dig back to 1724 for the origin of this saying. Cato’s Letters were a series of essays written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in one of which the following appears “Foxes are trapann’d [trapped] by Traces, Pheasants by a red Rag, and other Birds by a Whistle; and the same is true of Mankind.”

Later, vipers were said to be distracted by a red rag.

It wasn’t until 1873 that the mighty bull arrived in the idiom. However, the whole thing is―ahem―bullshit. Bulls are colour blind so a green or blue cloth would do the job just as well.

It's the movement of the cape that irritates the bull not its colour.
It's the movement of the cape that irritates the bull not its colour. | Source

“Hit the Bullseye.”

Meaning: to be completely right about something.

It also means hitting the centre of a target in archery or darts, but why do they call it the bull’s eye? An extensive internet search comes up with that same irritating “origin uncertain.”

The most popular theory is that in the Middle Ages English archers practiced their craft by firing arrows at a bull’s skull. The challenge was to lodge an arrow in the eye socket.

Here comes a grammar lesson from The Grammarist, “Originally, bull’s eye was spelled with a possessive noun and is still seen that way sometimes. However, the Oxford English Dictionary only lists the one-word spelling, bullseye.

(And, spell-check just flagged bullseye as an error). Ha!

“All Hat and no Cattle.”

Meaning: Someone with superficial charm but no substance.

You get the image of the dude rancher wearing a gigantic Stetson but with not a clue how to raise cattle; boastful as all get out but with no achievements.

Everyone’s favourite TV villain of the 1970s, J.R. Ewing of Dallas, gets unearned credit for this idiom. Yes, it comes out of Texas, but as with so many of these phrases its birth is obscure, as is the case with many synonyms:

  • All icing, no cake;
  • All hammer, no nail;
  • All sizzle, no steak;
  • All foam, no beer.


“Bull Market.”

Meaning: the value of stocks is rising, a bear market is when stock prices are falling.

Yet another idiom whose origin is murky, but Investopedia takes a stab at an explanation. Both animals attack their adversaries in different ways: “… a bull will thrust its horns up into the air, while a bear will swipe down. These actions were then related metaphorically to the movement of a market: if the trend was up, it was considered a bull market; if the trend was down, it was a bear market.”

A second opinion please.

Merriam-Webster says the bear came first and hails from an 18th century proverb that it is unwise “to sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear.” Placing a value on something that doesn’t yet exist suggests the seller believes the price will go down, so the bear became associated with a downward market.

The dictionary publisher says the bull “seems to have been chosen as a fitting alter ego to the bear.”


"Bull in a China Shop."

Meaning: to be aggressive and, in the process, smash things.


Meaning: rubbish, nonsense, advertising, and political platforms.

One of the major poets of the 20th century gets credit for this word. Yes, none other than T.S. Elliot wrote a poem under the title The Triumph of Bullshit. He submitted it for publication in a British literary journal in 1915 and it was rejected on the grounds it was a bit too vulgar for the audience.

The Guardian comments that “Probably the word ‘bullshit’ was imported from the poet’s native U.S.; but so far no one has found ‘bullshit’ in print as a single word before 1915.”


“Sacred Cows.”

Meaning: an institution, belief, or tradition that cannot be changed.

This comes from the Hindu belief that cows are reincarnated humans and are, therefore, holy.

The now-defunct New York Herald gets the accolade for turning this into a simile. In 1890, the paper complained a project should not be worshipped “as a sort of sacred cow.”

In 1909, The Galveston Daily News went all in, and turned the simile into an idiom and described a project as a “sacred cow” rather than simply being like one.

Bonus Factoids

E-Cow-Nomics is a branch of the dismal science that explains “isms” in bovine terms:

  • Socialism―You have two cows and you give one to your neighbour.
  • Communism―You have two cows, the government takes them both and gives you a pint of milk once a week.
  • Corporatism―You have two cows. You sell one and force the other to produce four times the milk. Then, you call in a consultant to find out why the cow died.
  • Surrealism―You have two rhinoceroses and the government orders you to take accordion lessons.
  • Nazism―You have two cows. The government decides they are the wrong colour and shoots them and you.
  • Bilateralism―You are a Canadian farmer with two cows. They graze north of the border with the United States and are milked south of the border. (But, there is no bitterness here in the Great White North. None whatsoever. Well, maybe a bit. Actually, millions of milk churns full because of the Trump administration. )
  • “As awkward as a cow on roller skates.” Meaning: off balance, clumsy. This phrase cannot pre-date 1863, which was when one James Plimpton of Massachusetts invented the four-wheeled roller skate.
  • According the the BBC program Quite Interesting, “A cow with a name will produce 450 more pints of milk a year than one without a name.”



  • The Phrase Finder
  • “Where Did the Bull and Bear Market Get Their Names?” Investopedia, May 26, 2017.
  • “The History of ‘Bull’ and ‘Bear’ Markets.” Merriam-Webster, undated.
  • “TS Eliot: the Poet who Conquered the World, 50 Years on.” Robert Crawford, The Guardian, January 10, 2015.
  • “Bullseye or Bull’s Eye.” The Grammarist, undated.
  • English Language & Usage.
  • Synonyms.net.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Idioms we can use. Very interesting. Thanks for the explanations.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      I love the cow idioms. I like this type of article, it is fun! I thought "bull in a china shop" meant that no matter how hard you try not to, your going to smash everything to pieces. Or, lacking a certain amount of refinement. LOL, idioms can mean many things depending on where you are raised. :)

    • profile image

      S Maree 

      2 years ago

      I have always loved cows. Now I love them more! Fun & enlightening!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)